skip to Main Content

Article authored by Readout Health with editorial oversight from Chief Medical Officer, Naomi Parrella, M.D.

There’s no doubt about it, mindfulness is all the rage these days. In all its many forms – from head-to-toe body scans to gratitude practices to walking meditations to simply sitting and breathing – mindfulness has one solitary goal: enhancing emotional well-being. Mental health remains a serious public health focus, with as many as 21% of adults in the United States experiencing anxiety and depression. Along with elevated hospitalization rates, lost income, and substance use, people with anxiety and depression are also more likely to suffer negative health consequences, with a 40% higher risk of developing metabolic diseases than the general population. This may be explained by the fact that many people reach for food, especially sweets, to cope with unpleasant emotions. Many people think of sugary foods as mood boosters for sure, but their “feel-good” effects are temporary, too often resulting in feeling worse than before. And that’s because sugar can profoundly influence your emotional state of mind.

So, can practicing mindfulness help keep your healthy eating habits on track, steering you away from reaching for sweets when things get tough? Recent evidence appears to suggest so.

The link between sugar and the brain

Ever feel anxious after a long day and make a beeline for the ice cream bowl, hoping to feel better after that first bite? Turns out, there’s a physiological explanation for that. Stressful emotions like anxiety can actually cause cravings for sugary foods. In fact, refined sugar is so addictive that scientists believe it affects the brain the same way as cocaine, leading to a craving, binging, building a tolerance to, and even withdrawal. 

What makes sugar so addictive, especially when stressed? It comes down to how the body responds to stress in the first place, which partly occurs in the brain. The body’s response to stress is controlled by its HPA axis, a network made up of the brain and certain hormones that facilitate the interaction between the adrenal glands, pituitary gland, and hypothalamus. Once this network is activated, the hormone cortisol is secreted. When sugary foods are eaten, activity within the HPA axis is weakened and hormones are released to promote a feeling of relaxation. And when the next anxiety-inducing event takes place? You guessed it – the brain just wants another sugar hit, perpetuating a cycle of “stress eating.” Eating sugar also stimulates the brain’s reward pathway that controls memory and behavior, triggering a “feel good” hormone dopamine flow. Sugary foods are even shown to disrupt the way the body senses satiety or feeling full, making it easier to overeat foods that are harmful to health. 

How sugar feeds anxiety and depression

Given the considerable impact sugar can make on the brain and the release of mood-altering hormones, it’s not surprising that eating sweets regularly can lead to an emotional slump. A recent study discovered this to be true, finding that adolescents who consumed more than 25g of sugar from soft drinks seven or more times per week reported much higher rates of anxiety and depression. Another study confirmed this finding, demonstrating that among 23,245 adults who consumed varying amounts of sweetened foods and beverages for five years, those who consumed more than 67g of sugar per day were 23% more likely to develop depression than those who consumed less.

What may explain this? Scientists have discovered three ways that the body’s response to eating sugar may directly lead to emotional distress. First, consuming carbs like sugar increases inflammation in the body, and inflammation in the brain is believed to contribute to depression. Sugar also dampens BDNF production, a protein vital for brain health that acts as a natural antidepressant. Perhaps the most recognized setback that may arise from eating too much sugar is the dreaded “sugar crash.” A sugar crash is caused by low blood sugar that may occur after too much sugar is consumed. A high amount of ingested sugar causes blood sugar to spike. The more sugar in the blood, the more insulin is released to quickly transport the sugar out of the blood and into storage. This can result in a dramatic drop in blood sugar, leading to irritability, anxiety, and depression.  

Avoiding the blood sugar rollercoaster means keeping insulin low and stable. Learning healthier ways to cope with uncomfortable feelings – that don’t involve food – is a great first step. Incorporating mindfulness into your life can keep emotional eating at bay and boost your mood in the process.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is defined as the “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) technique, suggests that approaching your reality nonjudgmentally allows you to have a healthier relationship with your thoughts, even those that are unpleasant. The goal of mindfulness is to notice your thoughts as they come without trying to control or change them but simply accept your thoughts, experiences, emotions, and behaviors as they are. This practice is shown to improve self-awareness and the ability to handle tough feelings. Rather than automatically reacting when negative emotions arise, learning to accept your current experience can ease worries, cultivate resilience, and ultimately lead to better life satisfaction. In fact, a growing number of studies confirm just this, suggesting that adopting mindfulness in the form of meditation can significantly improve anxiety. Other studies find that mindfulness can also improve symptoms of depression and even physical ailments like fatigue and pain. Interestingly, functional MRI brain imaging shows that mindfulness actually alters brain activity, specifically decreasing activity in the amygdala, the section of the brain that plays a central role in inducing anxiety in response to stressful situations.

Putting mindfulness into practice: the benefits of mindful eating 

Sticking with a consistent eating plan is far from easy for most people. Life gets hectic, routines get disrupted, and stressors come and go that set off strong cravings for unwholesome foods. Incorporating the principles of mindfulness into the way you eat can be transformative in how you think about and enjoy food, leading you to make healthier food choices for your body. 

So, what does it mean to eat with mindfulness? Mindful eating involves making conscious food choices by paying attention and responding to your body’s physical cues like hunger, taste, and fullness while you eat without judgment. In other words, choosing to eat because you’re hungry, ending your meal because you’ve had enough, and eating a specific food because you enjoy the taste. Eating this way keeps you more in control of what and when you eat rather than eating simply out of habit. Eating mindfully involves acknowledging your senses so that you can really pay attention to your food’s texture, smell, taste, and color. Because mindfulness allows for the awareness of and increased tolerance for distressing emotions, thoughts, and sensations, scientists believe that practicing mindfulness may be useful in identifying stressful triggers that lead to impulsive, emotional eating

Can mindful eating help to reduce cravings for sweets? According to one recent study, it may. 194 adults with obesity were assigned to two diet and exercise groups, one with mindfulness training and one without, for 5.5 months. The subjects who learned mindfulness followed guided eating meditations and were trained to increase their awareness of physical hunger, stomach fullness, taste satisfaction, food cravings, and emotional triggers to eating. They were not instructed to avoid any particular food. Instead, they learned how to savor their food’s tastes and textures throughout the meal. The researchers found that the mindfulness group showed a significantly greater increase in eating awareness and could maintain their awareness even 1.5 years later. As a result, this group also ate fewer sweets and experienced a lower increase in fasting glucose (+0.02 mg/dL) compared to the control group (+2.33 mg/dL).  Mindful eating can also help to curb emotional eating habits like binge eating, as well. Another study reviewed ten studies looking at eating behaviors and outcomes of mindful eating interventions and found that along with increased hunger awareness, nine studies resulted in less binge eating, and seven studies reported a reduction in emotional eating. 

Research reveals there may also be a relationship between mindful eating, body mass index (BMI), and anxiety. The mindful eating practices of 216 subjects among four groups – yoga practitioners, recreational athletes, university athletes, and people with obesity – were analyzed, along with their BMI, emotional eating behavior, and mental state outcomes. The results demonstrated that the subjects with the least awareness of their eating habits were also the most likely to be overweight, feel anxious, and partake in emotional eating. 

Perhaps most importantly, mindful eating is shown to promote greater self-compassion. Self-compassion can be described as feelings of kindness toward oneself, avoiding self-criticism and judgment toward “failures.” Along with greater happiness and quality of life, evidence indicates that people with high self-compassion engage in more health-promoting behaviors like managing emotional food cravings. Self-compassionate people are better able to self-regulate their emotions and eating behaviors. Because they eat to enjoy it and don’t blame themselves, their anxiety also tends to be lower. A 2021 eight-week mindful eating intervention demonstrated this, where 57 people with overweight or obesity and their behavioral, psychological, and weight changes were assessed. One group was recruited to participate in the intervention, and one was not. Those in the intervention were discouraged from avoiding foods and were trained to increase their awareness of and savor their food’s tastes. As a result of the intervention, those who participated experienced a significant increase in self-compassion, less anxiety, and a reduction in overeating. These effects also appeared to last even several months after the intervention was completed.

The bottom line

With rates of mental health conditions continuing to climb, it’s more important than ever to prioritize caring for your and your loved ones’ emotional well-being. Too often, food – especially sugary food – is overindulged as a way to cope with day-to-day stress and anxiety.  While the sugar craving is real, giving in to the craving when life feels tough doesn’t have to be a certainty. Practicing mindfulness is a proven, powerful way to get back in control and cultivate emotional ease so that you can learn to receive all that life has to offer in a healthier way.

  • Back To Top
    Verified by MonsterInsights